Moses spoke to the people, saying: "Fear the Lord, your God, and keep, throughout the days of your lives, all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you, and thus have long life. Hear then, Israel, and be careful to observe them, that you may grow and prosper the more, in keeping with the promise of the Lord, the God of your fathers, to give you a land flowing with milk and honey.
"Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today."(P) The word of the Lord.
My God, my rock of refuge, my shield, the horn of my salvation, my stronghold! Praised be the Lord, I exclaim, and I am safe from my enemies. (R)
The Lord lives! And blessed be my rock! Extolled be God my savior, you who gave great victories to your king and showed kindness to your anointed. (R)
Brothers and sisters: The Levitical priests were many because they were prevented by death from remaining in office, but Jesus, because he remains forever, has a priesthood that does not pass away. Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.
It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens. He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests, but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law, appoints a son, who has been made perfect forever.(P) The word of the Lord.
One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, "Which is the first of all the commandments?" Jesus replied, "The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these."
The scribe said to him, "Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, "He is One and there is no other than he." And "to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself" is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."
And when Jesus saw he answered with understanding, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And no one dared to ask him any more questions.(P) The Gospel of the Lord.
One of the Russian novelists and historians of the twentieth century was Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In his youth he was a fervent communist. But, having experienced and witnessed the brutality of the communists at first hand, he became an outspoken critic of Joseph Stalin and bravely exposed the horrors of Soviet communism to the world in his novels and nonfiction works. As a result, he was imprisoned in labour camps and forced into exile for many years. In the course of his imprisonment and sufferings he became an Orthodox Christian.
After his expulsion from the Soviet Union, he fled to Europe. But soon, he realized that many of the things happening in the Western world were no different from that in the Soviet Union. He reasoned out that the West lost its Christian roots that had so profoundly shaped its history. From his point of view, the western society was going through a "drying up of the religious consciousness" phase and that it had become "embarrassed to appeal to eternal concepts, embarrassed to state that evil makes its home in the individual human heart before it enters the political system".
To his further observation of the entire 20th century which witnessed two world wars, the ethnic and political purges of Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot, China's Communism and other conflicts of nations across the world that brought death to over 130 million of our fellow human beings, Solzhenitsyn recalled the elders' rationale for the atrocities inflicted on Soviet citizens - "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened". He also pointed out that "the failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of 20th century".
Around 1400 years before Christ, God had done a great favour to the Israelites. He had saved them from slavery in Egypt, and brought them to the land of their ancestors, the Promised Land.
In return, God required of them to:
When they failed to obey the commands, God's prophets repeatedly called upon them to turn to God, to worship Him, to obey and adhere to His will, to do His pleasure, and follow His teaching, Joshua (22:5).
From the time of the exile and onwards, the scribes, along with the Pharisees, became the custodians and stewards of the Mosaic Laws and their requirements. They were the most renowned teachers and the interpreters of the Law. In the Old Testament time, the best-known scribe was Ezra. He had returned to Jerusalem from captivity and devoted himself to study and observance of the Law, and to teaching, Ezra (7:10-12). By Jesus' day, they were called "Rabbis". In today's gospel we hear of a scribe who approached Jesus in sincerity and good will. He was a learned man, an expert of the Law. Yet he wanted to know from Jesus the most important commandment in the Law, because it was often a matter of debate in the rabbinic schools, Mark (12:28b-34).
At the time of Jesus, there were two main opposing schools of thought in Judaism, known as Hillel and Shammai. The Shammai was stringent or restrictive, while Hillel was more lenient. Mishnah, which is believed by Jews to have been handed down orally by Moses who received it on Mount Sinai with the written Law or Torah, identifies 316 disagreements between these two schools. In other words, these schools had the tendency to "contract as well as to expand the law".
There were those who held the view that there were important and unimportant matters of the law, that there were great principles which were of the utmost importance. But, there were others who strongly opposed such thought and understanding. They believed that every detail of the law was important and equally binding, and trying to distinguish between their relative significance was highly dangerous. So, the question which the scribe asked Jesus was something which was an issue in Jewish thought and discussions.
Jesus responded to the scribe by citing the first part of one of the best-known, most fundamental expressions of Jewish belief, namely, the "Shema Yisrael": "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength", Deuteronomy (6:4). The remainder of the Shema prayer is taken from the Books of Deuteronomy (6:5-9, 11:13-21) and Numbers (15:37-41). The Hebrew word "shema", means "listen" or "hear". But it can also mean responding to what one hears. In other words, it is a command to hear and obey.
The text had three uses in ancient Israelite tradition.
Jesus however did not stop with the Shema, He also added a complimentary law: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself", Leviticus (19:18). In the original text, the neighbour meant a fellow Jew not a gentile. During Jesus' time, gentles were seen as pagans who did not know the true God, and therefore, it was quite permissible to hate them. But Jesus took the old law and filled it with a new meaning. He pointed to the love that goes beyond boundaries and limits, and without conditions. These, however, are not really two, but one single commandment. He summed up all the laws in a single commandment of loving God and one's neighbour. In other words, true faith in God means thinking well of God - with fear, trust, reverence, and love, and accepting and loving our fellow human beings as God does.
The scribe appreciated Jesus' answer by saying, "Well said, Teacher. You are right in saying, He is One and there is no other than He". And "to love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices", Mark (12:32-33).
There are two things to note here:
First, by addressing Jesus, "rabbi" or "teacher" or "master", the scribe addressed Jesus respectfully and, acknowledged Jesus as a teacher of the law, that is, the one who was suitable to expound the scriptures.
Second,whilst being appreciative of Jesus and perhaps recalling the scriptures, he said that the love of God and neighbour outweigh all burnt offerings and sacrifices, Hosea (6:6); 1 Samuel (15:22). In fact, Jesus Himself quoted the Old Testament scriptures on two occasions that the Lord "desires steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings", Matthew (9:13, 12:7); Hosea (6:6).
In reply, Jesus commended the scribe's insight and noted that he "was not far from the kingdom of God", Mark (12:34). "Kingdom of God" is not something that can be seen or observable with the eyes; it is not something that can be measured or even counted; it is not an earthly or political kingdom, Luke (17:20-21). Saint Paul says that the kingdom of God is not "a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit", Romans (14:17). It is a spiritual realm or kingdom where Jesus Christ reigns as the King, John (18:33-37). Simply put, wherever God is truly recognized and honoured as King, only there can we find His kingdom.
Unlike other scribes, who merely studied the law and taught the law, this "exceptional" scribe appeared to have rightly understood the most fundamental principle of the Law. That is, belief in God is not bound up merely in ritual and the letter of the law but has to come from a heart that loves God and his fellow human beings. However, Jesus' response also contained an element of warning. He said of the scribe that he was "not far" from the kingdom of God, but yet "not in".
In other words, his great learning, comprehending the things of God, piety and respect alone would not make him a member of God's kingdom. He was near the kingdom of God but had yet to take the most essential step of entering it. Faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Saviour is the only "step" to enter into the Kingdom of God. So, the scribe was yet to believe in the God who revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Hopefully, he went away and pondered what Jesus had said. Hopefully, he would have realized that he had fallen short and that he must profess his faith in Jesus so as to close the gap and enter into God's kingdom.
What can we learn from this gospel text?
The first generation led by Joshua, the leader of the Israelite tribes after the death of Moses, was faithful, served the Lord and remembered His mighty works: this faith was mirrored and replicated in the next generation. The second generation, by contrast, knew neither the Lord nor His good works, Judges (2:10). There followed generations of Israelites who forgot God and all the things He had done for them; this had led to some disastrous consequences. Nonetheless, God did not forget His covenant. He told them over and over again, through His prophets, that they were His beloved children, and it was not possible for Him to forget them, Isaiah (49:14-16).
Unfortunately, the same pattern repeats itself over and over again in the history of humankind. The lack of gratitude to God is passed from one generation to the next. Many in our society are growing up without knowing God or bowing in prayer to Him. Often, we too have a tendency to forget God. Even though we profess to be Christians and are active in church work, we sometimes get trapped in the secular worldview that encourages greed, competition, accumulation of group and individual wealth and power. Little by little, we drift away from the church, forsake our Christian heritage and gradually forget God; we tend to forget God's power, faithfulness, love and righteousness; we worship strange gods and treat others as aliens; we live as if there is no God or God does not exist.
Today, just as the Israelites were reminded throughout the Bible not to forget God, we are also reminded not to forget Him no matter how bad things get or how bad life is. We should rather always fear the Lord and love Him at the same time; we should walk in the ways in which He has appointed us to walk; we should serve Him with all our mind, heart, soul and strength. Yes, indeed God must be the first part of our day, the first priority to every decision, and the first place in our heart. As long as we remember God, we can rest assured that no matter what is going on with us, He is right there with us for God never forgets us.
To us, Christians, loving others is not an option, but rather a command. Loving others means loving everyone - not just those with whom we have an affinity or common interests. But, absolute obedience to this command is impossible without fully obeying the first part of the command. That is to say, if we love God wholeheartedly, we will naturally love our neighbours as ourselves. Hence, a true love of God leads inexorably to true love of others.
Ritual is an act of worship through which we express our heartfelt love and devotion to God. In this regard, ancient Israelites and we are the same. Ritual is an integral part of Catholic life. The seven Sacraments, such as Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Marriage, are the most important Catholic rituals. Plus, there are a number of practices like fasting, praying the Rosary, pilgrimages, lighting candles, genuflecting before entering the church, making the sign of the cross, sprinkling of water, etc.
While some of these rituals were mandated by the early Church, others have developed because the practices have been repeated day after day or year after year. Rituals are not wrong in themselves. They can be beneficial. But empty rituals are wrong. Any ritual that replaces, obscures, or detracts from a vibrant relationship with Christ is wrong.
Hence, it is important to realize that God sees the heart, and He seeks those who worship Him "in the Spirit and in truth", John (4:24).(P) Amen.
God Bless You!